The comedian Emo Philips wrote the following joke, long popular in seminaries and church-y circles:
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”
Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
It’s a good joke, especially if one is familiar with some of the more obscure schisms and disputes within American Protestantism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With minor adjustments, it could work for almost any of the great doctrinal debates and splits within the two-thousand year history of Christian theology.
Standing at a distance and observing those fights from our more ecumenically-minded age, many of the heated controversies of the past can seem pretty petty and ridiculous. That word “heretic,” with its attendant excommunications and punishments, is almost enough to cause a modern student of doctrine to throw up her hands, shout “To hell with them all!”, and turn from the minutiae of theological disputation to the more practical questions of faith and life. One catchy slogan for the World Council of Churches in the mid-twentieth century summarized that spirit quite well: “Doctrine divides—service unites.”
And yet I’ve been thinking recently about the category “heretic,” and what place, if any, it has in the Church today.
Last spring, I read with interest an email chain among the members of an ecumenical men’s Bible study here in Greenwich. The members of the group, all committed members of different congregations in town, had spent one of their sessions talking about the question of Christian universalism—i.e., is salvation limited only to professing Christians, or will God in his mercy save all humankind?
Based on the summary email sent by the leader of the group, I got the sense that it was a rich, honest conversation. Obviously, the men were not attempting to resolve the whole issue that evening, but had come together to discuss what Scripture and the tradition have to say on this challenging, emotional topic.
And they took some heat for it. Apparently some members of local congregations (as well as some members of the Bible study group itself) rejected the topic out-of-hand as “heretical.” After describing the resistance and hostility that the mere discussion of universalism had engendered, the leader of the group wrote this:
I am wary of any religious leader or teacher who is comfortable using the word “heresy.” Such teachers mistakenly assume that they have God and the Scriptures fully understood. This shuts down openness, inquiry, questions and conversation. Worst of all, human judgments of heresy have led to great evil, including the crucifixion of God by Caiphas and the Pharisees, the burning and drowning of “witches” in Salem, the horrors of the Inquisition, the church’s murderous persecution of Martin Luther, and so on. To which of the 34,000 Christian denominations does the teacher of “correct orthodox theology” belong? God does not want us to put ourselves or Him in any theological box and pretend that we have everything figured out. Rather, God wants us to pursue Him with open hearts and minds, and continually ask the Holy Spirit for more guidance, understanding and inspiration.
That paragraph gave me pause. As a (very junior) “religious leader and teacher,” I chose to respond to it. This is the (lightly redacted) email that I wrote, expressing why I think the concept and category of heresy—and the Church’s willingness to name it as such—remains critically important today:
Thank you for sharing this reflection on the universalism conversation: it sounds like it was a powerful discussion of an important topic. I was really impressed that you all chose to tackle it and was sorry that I could not be a part of it. It sounds to me like this will be a fruitful starting-point for study and prayer for a lot of guys in the weeks and months to come.
I had just one reflection regarding your summary that I wanted to share with you. You mentioned that you are “wary of any religious leader who is comfortable using the word ‘heresy.’” I should say right off the bat that I am not myself a religious leader much inclined to use the word heresy. In the long and spotted history of the Church, the condemning cry of “Heretic!” has often been a weapon used to beat down folks with alternative viewpoints and legitimate questions. Such an approach is absolutely inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
At the same time, however, I do believe that the Church (by which I mean the whole body of faithful people—not just one denomination, and absolutely not just the clergy) has an important role in testing and determining the boundaries of the faith. In other words, I think the whole work of wrestling, arguing, conversing, challenging, studying, praying and digging that you so eloquently commend in your email is a process with a purpose. We’re not called to do all that stuff because it’s interesting and we like to do it (though both of these may be true). We’re called to do it all because God has revealed himself to us, and wants us to live ever more fully into his transforming self-revelation. Under the graceful guidance of the Holy Ghost, we continually seek a truer, more faithful, more complete understanding of God—because God came and sought us.
And in its oldest sense, the word “heretic” refers to someone (or a group of folks) trying to bypass that whole process. The Greek roots of “heresy” are all about “taking” or “choosing.” In the New Testament, the word is almost always used in the context of “a sect,” like the Pharisees or Sadducees, or the squabbling factions of the church in Corinth. The characteristic mark of that kind of sect is hubristic certainty. An haireseis is a group of the (self-)”chosen.” They “take” for themselves—and their views—all authority: they claim access to special truth. The NT and early Christian sense of the word often includes a strong sense of intellectual or social division: only the elite; only the enlightened; only my class of people; only those who are worthy will be able to grasp these truths. This is, of course, the complete opposite of the Christian Gospel, which focuses not on the utter unworthiness of those called, but on the endless worthiness of the One who calls.
This understanding of the word heresy is probably best demonstrated in the great Christological controversies of the early centuries of Christianity. As the Church struggled to comprehend and explain just who Jesus is and what he accomplished, various teachers and groups spoke with extreme certainty. Some announced that he wasn’t really a human being, but only God appearing to be a human. Others declared that he was a really great human being, but that he wasn’t actually God. Many of the people who voiced these positions did so out of honorable motives. They wanted to defend God’s unity, or to separate divine perfection from the suffering of this earthly life. But in speaking with such certainty on things hidden from human understanding, they limited Jesus and were forced to contradict a great part of the Scriptural and experiential witness of the Church. So, instead of yielding to the limiting certainty of the early heresies, the slowly developing orthodox tradition embraced the ambiguity: Jesus is fully human and fully divine. That’s a statement calling us to wrestle with God’s self-revelation without promising us a resolution. It is an invitation into mystery, rather than a declaration of graspable certainty.
And all of our conversations must be so. We are not men stumbling around a dark room, searching for a match to light. We are men who have been brought, suddenly and not by our own choosing, out of darkness and into the light. Now we are called, slowly and steadily, to draw our own hands away from our dazzled eyes, and begin to see clearly.
This whole unsolicited email is a very long-winded way of saying I think you all are doing a great job by tackling this issue with humility, sincerity, and a firm reliance on the Holy Spirit’s guidance. But that doesn’t mean we can give up the battle against heresy, if I may use such martial language. Indeed, the holy process that you all have undertaken will likely bring heresy to the surface, both in those who say “Why discuss it? Of course everyone is saved!” (and thereby limit God’s power and sovereignty) and in those who say “Why discuss it? Obviously those folks are damned!” (and thereby claim for themselves knowledge that belongs to God alone). Orthodoxy, when it is itself, always struggles to keep the doors open; heresy always tries to pull them closed. I think the Church today continues to have a responsibility to oppose (lovingly, peacefully, but plainly and firmly) any way of thinking that tries to limit God, and box him in. We have to be willing to name heresy for what it is, and to fight it.
With prayers of thanksgiving for the ministry you exercise,